Poetry Friday (the Picture Book Week version):
Leo & Diane Dillon’s Mother Goose
Numbers on the Loose

h1 September 7th, 2007 by jules

Mother Goose Numbers on the Loose
by Leo and Diane Dillon
October 2007
(review copy)

I try to mix things up a lot here at 7-Imp by reviewing library copies as well as review copies, and I try to review titles from a variety of publishers — both big and small. And so I’m sorry that it has almost verged on Harcourt Week here at 7-Imp this week; this title I’m reviewing today is the fifth Harcourt title I’ll be praising this week (though, to be fair, I’ve reviewed fourteen picture books this week, including this one, so it’s not been one publisher all the time). They’ve just got some great new Fall titles out right now. So be it.

And how can I pass up reviewing Leo and Diane Dillon’s new title, which is about Mother Goose, on Poetry Friday during our self-proclaimed Picture Book Week? I mean, it’s Leo and Diane Dillon — the duo who have been illustrating beautiful, award-winning picture books for fifty years. Exclamation mark. Exclamation mark. And it’s Mother Goose, the mama of all poetry for children. And it’s a winner, this book is.

In an illustrators’ note right at the beginning of the book, the Dillons explain that Mother Goose, for many generations, has served as a young child’s introduction to language, books, and the imagination. But they would like to offer an invitation to numbers as well — to “playful, energetic, magical, even at time mischievous numbers — numbers on the loose” (to be fair, there are books such as Roberta Arenson’s One, Two, Skip a Few!: First Number Rhymes, published in 1998 by Barefoot Books, though they are not all Mother Goose rhymes). Wondering if they would find enough rhymes for an entire picture book and extending their Mother Goose search to old volumes from the early twentieth century, the Dillons soon discovered that their problem instead would be having too many choices and having to narrow down entries for the book. They further explain:

We decided that we wanted our collection to include both well- and lesser-known rhymes, to progress from rhymes with smaller numbers to those with larger numbers, and most importantly, that we wanted our volume to honor the wonderful, fantastical quality of Mother Goose. We found ourselves imagining a clock with not only hands but also arms with which to ring itself, fish who row boats, and masked characters who can be whatever they choose in a world where everyone belongs.

Rock on. They just nailed part of what it is that has made their books so appealing to so many children for so many years now.

But I digress. So, yes, they ended up using versions of the rhymes they found in these early twentieth-century Mother Goose/nursery rhyme collections they consulted. And, even though they acknowledge that “Mother Goose is an oral tradition . . . variations abound . . . {and} there is no one definitive text,” I still wish they had included in the back of the book a reference section of sorts for us Mother Goose nerds and for readers in general about which collections these were that they consulted.

But that would be just about the only flaw I can find with this otherwise delightfully appealing and joyful romp of a book. Taking just two small liberties of their own (the child in “Baa, baa, black sheep” becomes a girl — and is that themselves they painted into the spread as the master and the dame? — and “a pinch of snuff” becomes “a powder puff” in “Barber, barber, shave a pig”), they start out by washing the dishes, wiping the dishes, and ringing the bell for tea: “3 good wishes,/ 3 good kisses,/ I will give to thee.” And, yes, they not only notate the numbers as digits in each rhyme (instead of spelling them out, that is), but they also bold them in a warm purple. Not surprisingly, there are several rhymes with “3”s in them, including “Baa, baa, black sheep” and “Charley Barley, butter and eggs.” And we move up to other numbers, but you also don’t need to expect a perfect succession (rhymes with “1”s in them, rhymes with “2”s in them, etcetera): The Dillons’ arrangement doesn’t confuse — we don’t jump from rhymes with “3”s to rhymes with “10”s, for instance — but there are rhymes with a variety of numbers in them, arranged clearly from one poem to the next (“Early in the morning at 8 o’clock/ You can hear the postman’s knock; Up jumps Ella to answer the door,/ 1 letter, 2 letters, 3 letters, 4!”).

As they make clear in their opening note, you will find traditional, well-loved rhymes (“1 potato, 2 potato”; “1, 2, 3, 4,/ Mary at the cottage door”; “Hickety, pickety, my black hen”; “Sing a song of sixpence”; etc.), but they also include those more obscure Mother Goose rhymes, such as:

Hickery, dickery,
6 and 7,
Alabone, crackabone,
10 and 11,
Spin, spun,
Twiddle ’em,
Twaddle ’em,

. . . and “Little Blue Ben, who lives in the glen,/ Keeps a blue cat and 1 blue hen,/ Which lays of blue eggs a score and a 10./ Where shall I find the little Blue Ben?”

And the illustrations? Well, the numbers cavort through each spread in that elegant and entrancing signature-Dillon way, and there’s the heavy dose of magic and whimsy that typically pervades their work: a bird on a bicycle, the aforementioned fish rowing himself in his boat and the clock ringing himself, wandering dogs and cats and pigs and ducks, and — as they mention in their illustrators’ note — lots of masks, lots of subterfuge and mystery, lots of mischief (such as, the fox disguised as a sweet old-lady chef in “Chook, chook, chook, chook, chook,/ Good morning, Mrs. Hen,/ How many chickens have you got?/ Madam, I’ve got 10 . . .”). The illustrations — done on a primarily earth-toned palette but with perfectly-placed splashes of color — parade across the spreads as if on a stage, placed on uncluttered white backgrounds and bleeding to the very edges, propelling us forward in this fantastical procession of creatures.

Glee. That’s the word. This is a gleeful creation. The more you look, the more you see and the more you enjoy. What a wonderful Mother Goose title to add to the canon of nursery rhyme anthologies.

8 comments to “Poetry Friday (the Picture Book Week version):
Leo & Diane Dillon’s Mother Goose
Numbers on the Loose

  1. Glee is a good word. A happy-making word. Thanks for another great review.

  2. I think I saw this and didn’t pick it up and I couldn’t tell you why. Now I’m going to hunt this down and give it a gander.

    Gander. When and how did that word come to mean “a male goose” and “to take a look at”? Does that not also suggest that Father Goose might also be called Father Gander?

  3. David E– Father Goose is a pretty progressive guy– he brought reggae to nursery rhymes after all. Perhaps he decided to change his name to reflect his wife’s last name, rather than the other way around. I respect that kind of forward-thinking.

  4. I think my previous comment made it to the spam box because I affixed a hyperlink.:(

  5. It did, but I fixed it.

    I can’t wait to see this one, Jules. I heart the Dillons.

  6. I reviewed this for poetry Friday too! 🙂

  7. For anyone who reads this review and is interested, Harcourt has an online activity kit for this book (for teachers). The best part is that you can browse through a few pages of the book. It’s all here.

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